What is the Meaning of an Annulled Marriage?

By Leslie Bloom - Updated January 07, 2019
Woman taking off her wedding ring

It’s not just divorce and death that can end a marriage. Annulment is also a way to dissolve a marriage, as long as certain conditions are met. Unlike divorce and death, annulling a marriage causes the marriage to be nonexistent in the eyes of the law, which can affect property division and custody of children.

Meaning of Annulled Marriage

When a marriage in annulled, it means that the union is declared void and invalid. Essentially, the marriage is deemed to have never existed in the first place. This differs from a divorce in that a divorce marks the end of a valid union, but the marriage is still recognized as having existed.

Some states put limits on when a marriage can be annulled. In California, for example, you must obtain an annulment within four years of marriage if the ground for annulment is fraud, consent by force or physical incapability. In Vermont, a marriage entered into by force or fraud can be annulled at any time as long as the parties don't live together before seeking an annulment. In Wyoming, a marriage that included physical incapacity must be annulled within two years of the marriage.

Grounds for Annulment

Not just any couple can get an annulment. Annulment is only available under limited circumstances, which vary by state. Typically, annulments are granted in these scenarios:

  • Incest: Marriages between certain family members, called incestuous, must be annulled in certain states. Even if both spouses consented to the marriage, the marriage was illegal from the time it took place and it therefore can't continue to exist.
  • Bigamy: A marriage is also illegal if one spouse was already married when the marriage took place. Bigamy voids the second marriage and it can be annulled as though it never existed.
  • Impotence: If one spouse has a physical condition making him unable to have intercourse to consummate the marriage, the marriage can be annulled.
  • Mental defects: A marriage can also be annulled if one spouse suffered from a mental defect and was unable to consent to the marriage when it took place.
  • Intoxication: Lack of consent is also a ground for annulment if the intoxication was severe enough to inhibit the spouses’ ability to understand their actions in getting married.

Force and fraud are also grounds for annulling a marriage. In the absence of any of these circumstances, a married couple must go through divorce proceedings to end their marriage.

Familiarize yourself with the laws of your state and the time limits imposed on getting an annulment if you're seeking an annulment. Some states recognize grounds that aren't included here, or they might not recognize some of them. Make sure you meet your state’s qualifications and deadlines.

The Effect of Annulment

The effects of annulment can be similar to when a divorce occurs. The court deciding the annulment can split property, divide assets and determine issues of child support and custody, as well as spousal support.

Any children born during the marriage are considered to be legitimate children of the couple, and appropriate proceedings will determine issues of child support and custody. As with any court proceeding involving children, the best interests of the children are given top priority.

Property is viewed somewhat differently when there is an annulment. Because the marriage is considered to have never existed, property is typically allocated as it was owned before the marriage. That is, each party gets everything back as it was before the marriage, even if the property was shared during the marriage. For longer-term marriages that are annulled, the court can divide property as it would during a divorce.

The parties can legally enter into another marriage or a domestic partnership without any issue after the annulment is finalized.

About the Author

Leslie Bloom earned a J.D. from U.C. Davis’ King Hall, with a focus on public interest law. She is a licensed attorney who has done advocacy work for children and women. She holds a B.S. in print journalism, and has more than 20 years of experience writing for a variety of print and online publications, including the Journal of Juvenile Law and Policy.

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